Lobby activities against traffic lights

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Around a billion euros have been invested by the European food industry with the aim of preventing a compulsory traffic-light labelling system for fat, sugar and salt being introduced at an EU level and implementing their own ideas instead.

In place of a label that would make different foods comparable at a glance, what we're now seeing is misleading portion sizes and confusing percentages on the front of the packaging of foodstuffs, combined with obligatory nutritional information in small print only. It doesn't stop there: the industry has not merely put an end to the "traffic light"; the room for manoeuvre for member states has also been limited considerably at the same time.

The European food industry has invested a billion euros in an unprecedented, long-standing lobbying battle to prevent legislation to introduce compulsory traffic-light food labelling within Europe. On 16 June 2010 they saw their desired outcome unfold in the European Parliament, which was initially well-disposed towards the traffic-light system. The battle had been won and the nutritional traffic light did not make it into the European Union's new Food Information Regulation. The trilogue negotiations between the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council of Ministers failed to change this.

Nutritional labelling: Member states have little room for manoeuvre

The EU resolution has made it compulsory to provide nutritional details for the so-called "Big 7" (energy value, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugar, protein and salt per 100 grams or millilitres). All products labelled after 13 December 2016 must show these details. Medical associations, health insurance providers and consumer organisations had been calling for this technical information, which often takes the form of a table and is printed very small, to be supplemented with an evaluative labelling system using traffic-light colours to be placed on the front of the packaging. The aim of this would be to make products with high levels of fat, saturated fat, sugar or salt recognisable at first glance.

Yet having come under pressure from the European food industry, the EU decided against this traffic-light system. Additional information on the front of packaging, for example for "problem foods" such as sugar and salt, is not obligatory and neither are EU member states permitted to enforce it. That's not all, however: if additional information is displayed on the front side voluntarily, then it must adhere to criteria that favour the food industry. For any evaluative nutritional detail - be it in the form of colours, words or numbers - suppliers must in future base their information on absurdly high daily recommendations for sugar consumption. The inventors of the traffic-light system originally planned it very differently.

The British traffic light: before and after

The British Food Standards Agency (FSA) came up with the three-colour system for fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt so that products could be compared at a glance and consumers could see immediately which foods had a "high", "medium" or "low" content of a particular nutrient - with a uniform measure of per 100 grams or 100 millilitres.

The values at which the traffic light switches from "green" to "amber" come from the EU Health Claims Regulation, the annex to which contains definitions of when a product can be labelled "low-fat" or "low-sugar". A "low-sugar" product with less than 5 grams of sugar per 100 grams therefore gets a green light for sugar - for drinks this limit is 2.5 grams of sugar per 100 millilitres. The FSA calculated the value at which a product switches from "amber" to "red" as follows: If 100 grams of a food provide at least 25 per cent of the maximum daily intake of a nutrient, then the traffic light is red.

Based on the recommendations of the World Health Organisation and the British Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy, the maximum daily intake of sugar in the original model created by the FSA was 50 grams, whilst the threshold value from "amber" to "red" was 12.5 grams per 100 grams for solid foods and 6.3 grams per 100 millilitres for drinks. Yet this all changed with the passing of the EU Food Information Regulation.

Threshold values between colours relaxed for sugar

Since the EU Food Information Regulation came into force, different threshold values have applied for the food traffic light - and that includes those in the UK, since any voluntary nutritional labelling now has to be based on very specific reference values set out in an annex to the regulation. This dictates the so-called "Guideline Daily Amounts", which also formed the basis of the "GDA labelling" developed by the food industry - a voluntary nutritional labelling system with which the big food corporations aimed first and foremost to prevent the traffic-light system. The Guideline Daily Amounts are also reference values for nutritional intake, but the most crucial difference to the reference values that underlie the traffic lights is that the maximum daily intake for sugar is not 50 grams, but rather 90 grams. This results in considerably higher red threshold values. Whilst solid foods were originally given red traffic-light labels with 12.5 grams of sugar and drinks with 6.3 grams, these limit values now stand at 22.5 grams (solid foods) and 11.25 grams (drinks). In other words: Based on the new maximum daily intakes, even the sugar-heavy classic Coca-Cola or biscuits are not given a red traffic light. It's therefore no wonder that corporations like Nestlé, which was once vehemently opposed to coloured labelling, no longer object to the British traffic-light labelling system since the new threshold values were introduced - and are even implementing it voluntarily.

Conclusion: The EU Food Information Regulation does not protect consumers from being misled, because it does not enable them to recognise foods high in sugar/fat/salt  at a glance. The individual member states can do little to change this. Firstly, they are unable to enforce additional nutritional labelling at national level, and secondly even voluntary additional nutritional details like the British traffic-light system must be based on absurdly high daily recommendations for sugar.

This proves that in its current form, the Food Information Regulation does not provide for consumer-friendly food labelling. foodwatch therefore calls for urgent revision of the regulation. The member states should put this on the agenda in Brussels.

Image: mark huls/fotolia.com